Sunday, December 3, 2023

‘Call Jane’: Underground network helped women get abortions before Roe

‘Call Jane’: Underground network helped women get abortions before Roe

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Jeanne Galatzer-Levy opened the door of a South Side Chicago residence around lunchtime on May 3, 1972, expecting to see a friend who was dropping off food. Instead, she recalled, she sized up a six-foot-five Chicago homicide officer standing in doorway, looking for the abortion doctor.

The Janes were being raided.

For roughly three years, an underground organization in Chicago its members called “the Service” had helped women safely access abortion, which at the time was generally illegal in all but four states. The women behind the group were collectively known under a code name: If people found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, a friend in the know might advise them to “call Jane.”

When the police raided one of the houses used by the Janes, officers came looking for what they presumed was the male doctor behind the operation.

“We remember the cops walking around saying, ‘Where’s the doctor? Where’s the abortionist?’ Because all the people inside were women,” said Martha Scott, now 80, who was among the seven Janes arrested that day.

In a flurry of confusion as police swept the apartment, Scott and other women considered tossing their medical instruments out the window as they hurried to obscure telltale signs of their activities. Other Janes grabbed notecards filled with patient info and slipped them into their purses — or their mouths. Galatzer-Levy credited her fellow Jane, Sheila Smith, with a better improvisation.

“Sheila said that we only had to eat the name and addresses, which was a great relief,” Galatzer-Levy said.

‘Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.’

Everyone in the home was hauled down to the Chicago police station at 11th and State streets, including about a half-dozen young children who came to the house with their mothers, who were patients. The children were eventually released, while the seven Janes spent the night in jail on charges of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion.

Less than seven months later, all charges against the Janes were dropped when the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 1973, handed down the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion throughout the country.

The long-standing ruling is now in jeopardy after a draft Supreme Court decision that leaked on May 2 showed the court’s conservative majority was prepared to strike down Roe v. Wade.

“It’s like going backward,” said Eileen Smith, a former Jane. “All this hard work with slow steps forward and backward — but basically going forward — seems like it’s all wiped away.”

Supreme Court is ready to strike down Roe v. Wade, leaked draft shows

Smith, now 72, first learned of the Janes as a 21-year-old with an unplanned pregnancy. She had quit school and was working a dead-end job and living in a $90-a-month studio apartment with her boyfriend, whom she knew she didn’t want to stay with. She knew few people in the city, having moved to Chicago less than a year earlier.

“I read articles in the newspaper about women dying from botched abortions, but I knew I couldn’t have a baby then,” Smith recalled. “I wanted to have kids, but this wasn’t the right time.”

Then she saw an ad in an alternative newspaper called the Chicago Seed with a simple message: “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.”

Smith called a number, asked for Jane, and waited for a call back.

The Janes service began in 1969 as an outgrowth of the civil rights and feminist movements that had swept much of the country, including Chicago.

The Janes knew their work wasn’t met with universal approval, and they sometimes encountered counterprotesters at abortion rights rallies. But Scott said, “The antiabortion people, it wasn’t nearly so organized as it was now.”

Laura Kaplan, a former Jane who wrote the group’s history in the 1995 book “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service,” said it was not the group’s founding that was unique.

“How we evolved was unique, and we started like a lot of other women’s liberation groups around the country, deciding we wanted to do something to help women navigate the illegal abortion world,” she said.

The group organized to suss out abortion providers who were competent and willing to perform an illegal procedure and — as Kaplan said in a recent interview with Post Reports — weren’t going to exploit women sexually or financially. The Janes helped prepare women for the experience via counseling, and they helped raise money for a procedure that at the time was too expensive for many women.

“I often say to people, the average illegal abortion was about $500 and you could rent a decent apartment in Chicago for about $150,” Kaplan said.

Martha Scott, one of the arrested Janes, said patients in the early days of the Service tended to be either older, premenopausal women who already had children or young girls.

“It initially was a lot of affluent people. Over time, the clientele was not so affluent,” Scott said. “By the time we stopped, the people coming to us tended to be younger, and Black and Latino women,” who often had fewer resources to travel to states where abortion was legal.

In most of the country, abortion remained illegal, and often dangerous. Eileen Smith, who first came to the Service seeking an abortion and later volunteered with the Janes, recalled how Cook County Hospital in Chicago had a septic abortion ward — an entire unit full of people who each at some point had an illegal abortion.

Allan Weiland, who worked in the ward as a medical student at the time, recalled in a 2019 essay for BuzzFeed the range of injuries he saw in the 40-person ward.

“I saw chemical burns, as well as perforations of the bladder, vagina, uterus, and rectum,” he wrote. “Some women came in with overwhelming infections or in septic shock.”

The ward closed the year after the Roe decision.

The Janes, who were a mix of stay-at-home mothers, students and working women, often relied on tactics that would be more at home in a spy thriller: code names, covert callbacks from public pay phones, unassuming “front houses” where patients would go before transferring to an abortion site, and blindfolded car rides with side-street stopovers to let money change hands.

“People called [the Janes’ number], and they got a recording that said, ‘This is Jane from Women’s Liberation. If you need assistance, leave your name and number and someone will call you back,’” said Kaplan, the Jane historian.

One of the Janes had an early version of an answering machine that was kept in someone’s closet on a reel-to-reel. Once a Jane collected the number, she would call back and say, “This is Jane, how can I help you?”

“We always wanted the woman to say what she wanted rather than for us to, you know, suggest it,” Kaplan said. “We weren’t foisting abortion on anyone. We wanted it to be, from the minute she called, everything we did was to underline the fact that was she was making a decision about her life.”

When Smith called the number as a scared 21-year-old, her callback Jane explained the process.

A callback Jane would find out what the patient wanted and get basic information to write on notecards, including the woman’s age, how far the pregnancy had progressed, whether she had health problems, and what she could afford. Then a “Big Jane” would schedule the appointment and pass the patient cards around at meetings, where counselors could pick who they wanted to counsel.

The counselors would explain to the patient what happens during the abortion procedure, what it would feel like and how they would be taken from a front location to the actual home where the abortion would be performed.

Smith said she went to her counselor’s house for the session; the woman’s young children crawled on Smith as the counselor explained how Smith would go to a home and would wait with several women before being taken to another location for the abortion. She would be blindfolded before the doctor came in.

“She explained it to me in real detail,” Smith said. “It was real concrete information, and it was reassuring.”

The Jane who ended up driving Smith from one front house to the next was eight months pregnant, Smith said.

“It made me feel so good, because she’s eight months pregnant and here I was. And she’s taking a risk for me not to have a kid right now,” she said.

As time went on, Janes themselves learned to perform abortions and didn’t always rely on doctors. Scott, one of the Janes, said they always disclosed to women that the procedure was illegal, and they would tell patients if the person helping them was not a medical professional.

After Smith’s abortion, the woman who counseled her called to make sure she was taking antibiotics and didn’t have any complications.

“I was so impressed, but she had an ulterior motive — she wanted to know if I’d babysit for her because her kids really liked me,” Smith said, laughing. Smith babysat while the counselor was off “doing Jane things.” The woman’s home phone would sometimes ring, and a woman on the other end would ask, “Is my counselor there? I’m bleeding.”

The woman had a pile of copies of the book “Women and Their Bodies” — later retitled “Our Bodies, Ourselves” — which Smith would consult to help answer women’s questions. She eventually quit babysitting and became a Jane herself, assisting in the abortion procedures.

Smith and her fellow Janes — many of whom remain in her core group of friends 50 years on — think something like the Service will return if Roe is ultimately overturned. Abortion will remain more widely legal in the United States than it was in the pre-Roe era, thanks to at least 16 states that have preserved reproductive rights at the state level.

“It will be very different. There’s the abortion pill, and that will change everything,” Smith said. “And because it’s just human nature, there will be people who will figure out how to help people.”

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